To Oblivion and Beyond

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, by Bethesda Softworks, uses slick graphics and the voices of actors Patrick Stewart and Lynda Carter.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, by Bethesda Softworks, uses slick graphics and the voices of actors Patrick Stewart and Lynda Carter. (Bethesda Softworks)

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By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, April 13, 2006

Thanks, Bethesda Softworks.

Just as spring has finally arrived and gamers might actually start catching some sunlight and fresh air, the local video game maker has gone and unleashed the dreaded realm of Oblivion -- effectively gluing fans across the country to their television sets and computer monitors for the foreseeable future.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is the latest entry in the game company's 12-year-old game franchise. The title, released last month, zoomed to the top of sales charts, where it fights it out with Electronic Arts' new Godfather game for No. 1 status; Bethesda says it has shipped 1.7 million copies of the game for PC and the Xbox 360 so far. Oblivion is also one of the most positively reviewed games in the short history of Microsoft's new game console.

Strange, but true: Washington has a small but vibrant game-developer scene, ranging from Mythic Entertainment Inc. in Fairfax to Firaxis Games in Hunt Valley. And Bethesda Softworks, which is next working on a couple of "Star Trek"-themed games, might be one of the most revered developers just about anywhere right now, thanks to its latest success.

The main storyline in Oblivion has to do with an emperor who dies in a fantasy-world kingdom called Tamriel, leaving no known heir. Thanks to that power vacuum, a sinister parallel world is starting to break through at a series of stone gates across the land that connect to a fiery dimension called Oblivion. It's not clear what the new neighbors have in mind -- to this level-four elf, at least -- but they don't seem friendly.

Plot aside, it's your basic, timeless Dungeons & Dragons stuff: Kill monsters, take their stuff, get better stuff and kill tougher monsters. Bethesda raises the stakes for the genre a few notches with slick graphics, a nice orchestral score and voice acting by actors like Patrick Stewart and Lynda Carter, who happens to be married to the chief executive of Bethesda's parent company, ZeniMax Media Inc.

There are about 16 square miles of virtual turf in Oblivion, packed with towns, dungeons and castles. Some of the textures in the stone and marble in places like the game's Imperial City might look familiar to Washington area players because Bethesda Software artists took snapshots of buildings and monuments around town, capturing textures that they used to make sure the game's walls and buildings looked realistic.

The D.C. World War I Memorial, for example, was an inspiration for some of the temples and shrines that players encounter in Tamriel. Oblivion's producer Todd Howard said yesterday that players might also notice some similarities between Great Falls Park and Tamriel's Great Forest. Howard said he and his team still play the game, which they started work on in July 2002, as they figure out what they want to do with their next project.

Most game worlds feel shallow and paper-thin, but Oblivion's is almost overwhelmingly deep. The game works equally well if you're the type of player who likes to swing a sword, throw fireballs, or sneak around and pick pockets. Play Oblivion one way and you'll find out that a merchant is a grave robber or that some of the women of Tamriel are running around on their husbands. But you could wander in another direction for a few dozen hours of gameplay and never stumble across any of these little intrigues.

While EA's Godfather game is selling briskly, it is little match for the passion that Bethesda's title has inspired. At geeky news Web sites like Digg.com, any fresh scraps or discussions about the game quickly zoom to the top of the page. When Apple released software allowing Mac computers to boot up with the Windows operating system last week, the first debate among some folks was whether Windows-running Macs will be able to run the resource-intensive Oblivion.

So far, there's only been one big source of contention for Bethesda's fans. The company annoyed some players by putting a new set of in-game horse armor for sale online for a few bucks -- in the past, fans were accustomed to getting this sort of thing for free. Upcoming purchasable add-ons to the game will throw in new features such as a new wizard's tower.

Scott Craig, a graphic designer who lives in Oklahoma, said he finds the practice offensive, an attempt to "nickel and dime" loyal fans who already paid $60 for the title.

That said, he likes the game. A lot. Craig loved Bethesda's previous Elder Scrolls title so much, he took a week off from work just to play it, and he's already invested at least 70 hours playing the new one. His wife isn't crazy about the obsession, but the game probably hasn't harmed his real-world social life because all his nearby friends are playing it, too.

His new side career as a master assassin did, however, keep him from updating his blog for a few weeks, parked at Cancerbox.com, and some of his readers started to complain.

"Its craziness," Craig posted apologetically, when he finally got back online to update his site. "Game has consumed my soul."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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